North Korea’s new foreign minister an outspoken retired army colonel

In this Jan. 9, 2018, file photo, head of North Korean delegation Ri Son Gwon speaks during a meeting with South Korea at the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea. (Korea Pool via AP, File)

North Korea has named as its new foreign minster a former senior army officer with little experience in dealings with the United States, in a possible indication it will take a harder line with Washington in stalled nuclear negotiations.

The new post for Ri Son Gwon was disclosed Friday in a Korean Central News Agency dispatch that said he attended a reception for foreign diplomats in Pyongyang on Thursday. South Korean and other outside media previously reported North Korea had recently informed foreign diplomats in Pyongyang of Ri’s job.

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In his speech at the banquet, “Comrade Ri Son Gwon said that the Korean people have turned out in the general offensive to break through head-on the barriers to the advance of socialist construction by dint of self-reliance … and made public the foreign policy stand of the (North Korean) government,” KCNA said.

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Ri, an outspoken retired army colonel who recently headed a government body responsible for relations with South Korea, has taken part in numerous inter-Korean talks over the past 15 years. But he lacks experience in negotiations with the United States.

In South Korea, he’s most known for what were seen as rude remarks to South Korean businessmen visiting Pyongyang in September 2018.

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While they were eating naengmyeon, Korean traditional cold noodles, Ri asked them: “Are naengmyeon going down your throats?” in apparent dissatisfaction with a lack of progress in efforts to promote inter-Korean economic projects. Many conservatives in South Korea strongly criticized him.

Ri replaced Ri Yong Ho, a career diplomat with broad experiences in dealings with both the United States and South Korea who had taken part in nuclear negotiations with the United States since early 2018. It wasn’t immediately known what happened to Ri Yong Ho, whose name was last mentioned in KCNA last August.

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Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute said Ri Son Gwon’s appointment signalled North Korea would further harden its stance on the United States and bolster its push to cement its position as a nuclear state.

“From now on, it’s difficult to expect meaningful progress in North Korea-U.S. diplomacy,” Cheong said.

Nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea have progressed little since the breakdown of the second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in February 2019.

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Kim recently said North Korea would bolster its nuclear arsenal and unveil a new “strategic weapon” after the United States failed to meet a year-end deadline set by him to make concessions.

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A senior State Department official told reporters Wednesday that Washington was aware of Ri Son Gwon’s reported appointment and hopes North Korea will understand the importance of resuming diplomacy.

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“There’s nothing to be gained by not talking. It’s only to their benefit, so we encourage them to talk,” the official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly to the matter.

“It is slow, patient, steady diplomacy. We’re going to stick with that plan.”

— Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.

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